8 More Questions to Ask in Your PR Agency Search

31 07 2012

As our Feb. 7, 2012 post – Eight Questions to Ask in Your PR Agency Search http://wp.me/ppqb5-e8– is still getting regular views five months after posting, it seems many people are struggling with the challenge of selecting the right PR firm.

So, based on our experience on both the client and the agency sides, we’d like to offer eight more questions you can ask that may aid you in making your choice. (For the first eight questions, click on http://wp.me/ppqb5-e8 .)

1)      What digital/social media experience does the firm have? For most clients, social and digital media will play at least some role in their PR program, so you’ll want to get an understanding of the company’s knowledge and real-world experience in the platforms that are best suited for your market. (One crucial clue – Does the firm use social/digital tools for itself as well as for its clients … or are they hoping to experiment/learn on your account?)

2)      How long have the individuals designated to work on my account been with the agency? If most of the team members are recent hires, it may be a sign of high-turnover at the agency, which can lead to inefficiency, instability and frustration … for you. You’d like an account team that already knows the agency’s policies, procedures and operations, so they will be more efficient and effective.

3)      What’s the average tenure of the agency’s staff on their respective accounts? Again, if the agency seems like it’s continually playing musical chairs, moving team members around and around, your account may experience the same kind of dizzying team turnover – and you’ll likely spend more time getting people up to speed than getting good results. Some new blood and fresh thinking on an account team are important, but are best when paired up with some stable teammates who know your account inside and out.

4)      How do you determine the agency’s rates and/or fees? Some agencies bill at one average hourly rate. Some bill at different rates for different job titles. Some bill actual hours worked each month, others bill on a monthly retainer basis and still others bill one-price project fees. However the agency operates, make sure you understand what you’re paying for and how much you’re paying for it, so there will be no surprises. A good partner will be transparent and forthright in its billing, and a steadfast steward of your budget — to help you get the most bang for your PR buck.

5)      Can you give me an example of how the agency helped a company like mine meet similar challenges? While past performance isn’t the only indicator of future success, it can be important. Most companies want an agency that has successfully been there and done that. If the agency’s success story was for a client in a different industry, at least the challenge should be similar to yours. The agency’s approach to the challenge and the thinking behind it are what will be most revealing to you.

6)      What can you tell me about my company? Has the agency done its homework to learn all it could about your company, without prompting? Have they gone beyond a cursory visit to your website? Have team members reviewed the past year’s news coverage or talked with editors and customers to get some perceptions of your company? If the agency is busier shaping its own story than trying to understand yours, they may not have the client focus you want.

7)      What can you tell me about my competitors, my customers and my market? Again, most companies would prefer an agency that is eager and proactive in learning about the client’s business environment over an agency that is focused on selling itself. Going the extra mile to learn about the environment in which your company operates and providing a candid assessment shows that the agency offers the kind of analytical thinking and candor that are the hallmarks of trusted advisors.

8)      Would you be willing to work with us on a project as a “test drive”? PR firms often want to sign a one-year (or longer) contract from the start. But that involves quite a bit of risk.  Most times, it’s better for a company and an agency to “date” before they get “married.” This approach limits the commitment and mitigates risk for both parties, while you determine if the most important factor in the client-agency relationship – the CHEMISTRY – works.

Happy hunting!

Off the Record, Embargoes and Other Media Relations Pitfalls

18 07 2012

If you’ve been doing PR for any length of time, you’ve received a call like this: “Why did that reporter use those market share numbers? I thought you called him after the interview and told him all of that information was off the record.”

Executives are sometimes confused about what is fair game for a reporter, and what is not … and exactly what off the record, as background or embargo mean. Let’s help them clear up the misconceptions and boost their understanding of some of the subtleties and use of these media tactics.

First, the generally accepted definitions of the terms:

  • On the record – all statements made are directly quotable and attributable by title and name to the person commenting;
  • As background – all statements are directly quotable, but not attributed by title or name, to the person commenting;
  • As deep background – all information revealed in the interview is usable, but not as direct quotes and not for attribution to the person commenting by name or title;
  • Off the record – all information provided is for the reporter’s understanding of a subject or issue only and is not to be made public in any way; and
  • Embargo – The providing of news releases and information (and often access to experts) in advance of the intended release date, in order to provide journalists with more time to understand and develop their stories.

All of these media relations techniques have value, but they also have risks, partly because different people and organizations have different definitions.

Generally, we counsel clients not to say anything that they don’t want to see in print, on the internet or on the air right away. Period.

Now, there are some very rare cases where the advantages of using these techniques may outweigh the inherent risks, but you have to be cautious.

For starters, before considering using any of these tactics, make sure you:

  • Have an established relationship with, and trust of, the journalist;
  • Can agree upfront  with the journalist – before the information is passed or interview is conducted – that she/he will honor the off-the-record or background status or embargo timing; and
  • Can agree upfront with the reporter on the definition of the approach you use. What “as background” means to the reporter may be different from what it means to you, so spell out your conditions in advance so there’s no misunderstanding.

If you don’t have all those assurances secured before the interview, you’re putting your executive – and perhaps your own job – in peril.

Beyond that, take extra care to make sure everyone involved is operating by the same set of rules. And then go the extra mile to make sure there is no room for misunderstanding.

For example, in an off-the-record situation, one way to mitigate risk is to clearly identify during the interview when off the record starts and stops, as in: “Everything I say from here on out is off the record, until I say we are back on the record.”

It also helps to tell the reporter than you will clearly signal when the off-the-record comments start and stop with a symbolic gesture, such as putting a pen down during the off-the-record comments and then picking the pen back up when going back on the record.

A few additional warnings about these special situations:

  • Some reporters and media outlets will not agree to your terms or conditions. If that’s the case, respect their rules, and make sure they understand why you won’t be able to provide the information or interview;
  • Many reporters use social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter – so make sure that they understand that those outlets are included in your agreement as to what is on the record, what is on background and what is embargoed;
  • When you go off the record, unless you get an agreement explicitly prohibiting this, you have to assume that the reporter will somehow try to get the information you provided confirmed by another source.
  • With bloggers and citizen journalists who are not trained in journalistic practices or bound by professional ethics, embargoes are riskier than ever and, therefore, much less common.
  • During an embargo period, you have to assume that the journalist may share embargoed information with a third party in order to get quotes or analysis, usually with some assurance that the third party will also honor the embargo.
  • Once embargoed information becomes public – even if it’s because a citizen journalist or blogger didn’t honor the embargo – it’s fair game for publication or broadcast by everyone. So realize that one errant Tweet by a blogger at your event can destroy your timing plan.

How have off the record, as background and embargoes worked (or not worked) for you?

Pay-Per-Hit PR vs. Retainer PR: The Winner Is …

10 07 2012

Clients everywhere have heard the pitches … “Don’t get trapped into large PR retainers. Pay only for the media coverage you get with our pay-for-performance model”… or conversely, “PR success isn’t measured in individual hits. If you want to succeed long term, you need to retain a strategic PR partner.”

Which approach wins? It depends on your company’s situation.

When it comes to selecting a PR firm, one approach does not fit all. (Disclosure: Our PR firm operates as a long-term partner to our clients on either a retainer or a service fee basis. This approach has worked for us and, more importantly, as a number of our client relationships have lasted 12 years or more, it is working well for our cost-conscious clients.)

Different companies, different situations require different approaches.

A pay-per-placement (PPP) PR approach may be right for you if:

  • Your company is a start-up or a small company;
  • Your company’s needs focus solely on tactical publicity placement;
  • Your company does not have a highly technical product/service or does not operate in a highly specialized sector;
  • You understand that placements ≠ PR … that is, publicity is only one part of an effective PR effort; and
  • You do not need strategic PR counsel, help in planning or message development, or outside perspective to ensure your PR program’s success

On the other hand,  a retainer approach (or a service fee situation where your agency works against an annual budget, develops and implements  a plan, and is paid monthly for actual hours spent executing the plan) may be better for you if:

  • Your company is an established, larger company;
  • Your needs go beyond mere publicity; and/or
  • You’re looking for a committed, strategic partner that can offer ideas and opportunities that will help your brand and company beyond publicity – such as visibility for your executives, securing speaking engagements, helping you develop messaging,  assisting you in times of crisis, leveraging your social media, providing media training for your executives, etc.

Is the pay-per-placement (or “drive-by PR”, as I call it) approach actually cheaper?

Not necessarily. If you seek a lot of “hits,” the cost may be more than you bargained for – especially if the PPP firm seeks to maximize its own revenue before moving on to the next client. Further, the real impact or ROI of the PPP approach may be disappointing, especially if the PPP agency doesn’t know or understand your market … or if it focuses on media that deliver large audiences, but don’t necessarily reach your key audiences.

A true story

A few years ago, one of our service fee clients (we’ll call Company D), had been approached by a pay-per-placement firm. While Company D was happy with our firm’s performance, the lure of potential savings captured the CFO’s attention. The PPP firm suggested that D could save a ton of money and score the same level of coverage by going with their “innovative” PPP model.

After reviewing the PPP firm’s rate schedule, we calculated that the media coverage we generated for Company D in the previous year would have cost D more than twice as much as we had charged through our retainer.

And our approach proved to be an even better deal, when Company D considered that for our retainer, we had also provided a wide range of other valuable PR counsel and support, well beyond what the PPP firm would have provided for the same budget.

The client quickly dropped the idea of moving to pay-per-placement (although it was starting to look really good to us!)

Most people will agree that you get what you pay for. If you pay only for placements, that’s all you will get.

The key to selecting the right PR model, as well as selecting the right PR firm, is to really understand what activities are important to you, what value you place on these activities and what provider best matches your needs, budget and culture.

Do you want a series of unconnected hits … or a strategic program? Do you want a series of “one-night stands” with your firm … or a committed relationship with a true partner who knows and understands you and shares your goals and values? The choice is yours.

We prefer to work on a retainer basis, where we can be an effective and efficient business partner to our clients. This enables us to be strategic and long-term in our thinking, and encourages us to deliver solid results that continue to earn us the client’s business, week after week, year after year.

Ultimately, though it’s really not important whether pay-per-placement or retainer PR wins. What IS important is that you choose the right partner … so YOU will win.


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